Champions decline with age and each generation is better than the last

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FROM THE very first episode of “The Queen’s Gambit”, a hit Netflix miniseries about chess in the 1960s, it is clear what a precocious talent Beth Harmon is. Before her tenth birthday, she has learned to beat the janitor at the orphanage in Kentucky where she resides. Soon she takes on an entire college chess club in simultaneous matches, winning each one easily. By her troubled teenage years, she is vanquishing all comers, including stalwarts who are considerably older. After Beth wins a gruelling two-day match against one silver-haired champion, he gracefully concedes: “You are a marvel, my dear. I may have just played the best chess player of my life.”

The seven-episode drama has received universal acclaim from critics: of the 58 reviews gathered by Rotten Tomatoes, an entertainment website, every one was positive. But it has also been praised by chess aficionados for its accuracy (doubtless helped by having Garry Kasparov, a former world champion, as a consultant). And a recent paper by three economists confirms that the series’ portrayal of a young upstart vanquishing her elders is exactly what happens in real chess, decade after decade.

The study, published last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analysed 24,000 matches involving world champions between 1890 and 2014. To assess the performances of the champions and their opponents, the academics compared their 1.6m moves against Stockfish 8, a chess-playing program that computes the best possible move for a given configuration of pieces on the board. The players were scored according to how often they picked Stockfish 8’s optimal moves. (The researchers also estimated how each move affected a player’s chance of winning and how often they made catastrophic mistakes.)

These results produced two clear conclusions. First, players tend to reach their peak early in their careers, with little improvement after their 30s. (There are even signs of a decline after 50.) Second, each generation comes closer than the last to Stockfish 8’s benchmark of optimal play. Professional players born in the 1950s had already reached a higher average level of performance by the age of 25 than those born in the 1920s ever did.

The authors reckon that the early-peak effect can be explained by the fact that the human brain’s problem-solving ability (or “fluid intelligence”) reaches its high point at around the age of 20. As for the long upward trend in performance through the decades, the authors suggest that more rigorous training is probably the cause. Indeed, modern chess masters can study the machines that now tend to beat them. If Beth were playing a methodical young champion today, she might surprise them with unorthodox play—but she would make enough mistakes to lose most of her games.

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